GLENDALE, Ariz. – The enthusiasm over the Steelers' 32-20 victory here last Sunday was tempered by the news that defensive end Aaron Smith must undergo neck surgery.
The Steelers placed Smith, 35, on the injured reserve list on Saturday, thereby ending his season early for the fourth time in five years. Teammates pondered the possibility that Smith's Steelers career might also be over following Sunday's victory over the Cardinals.
"I don't know," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "I really don't know. That's up to Aaron and the Steelers.
"It's been frustrating for him, obviously. He's one of the greatest competitors ever to put on a Steelers uniform. He wants to be out there competing, and it's very tough for him when he can't."
Smith had been out with a sprained foot since sustaining the injury in the Steelers' loss on Oct. 2 in Houston. The determination that neck surgery was necessary resulted from an examination into why Smith was still experiencing neck pain while recovering from the foot injury, neck pain Smith initially had attributed to the wear-and-tear of playing football.
Smith has started 152 of 160 career games with the Steelers after arriving as a fourth-round draft pick in 1999. He last played a full, 16-game regular season in 2008. A run of recent injuries limited Smith to 11 games in 2007, five in 2009, six in 2010 and now four games this season.
It's at least a possibility that Smith won't play another season for the Steelers.
"I don't know," said Ziggy Hood, who inherits the starting left defensive end position, as he had last season in Smith's absence. "He has too much heart and too much pride to go out like that.
"It's not up to me, but his heart is very big and I believe if he wants to he'll give it another try."
Hood said his approach to playing the game won't be altered.
"Still the same, play my technique, get better and do what I can to help this defense," Hood said.
"It's a very sad deal (for Smith). For a man who invested so much in this industry, especially with this team, it's just sad to see that. Hopefully, it's not too much bad news and everything will get corrected. But it's kinda sad. You see a vet like that go down, it's not anything he can really control.
"I just hope it's not bad, and he'll still be able to play with the kids later on down the line."
The Steelers activated undrafted rookie defensive lineman Corbin Bryant from the practice squad to fill Smith's spot on the 53-man roster. Bryant made his NFL debut on Sunday, and estimated he played "about eight plays" against the Cardinals.
The Steelers had kept a roster spot open for Smith last season after he went down with a torn triceps, with the hope that he might be able to make a comeback in the postseason. This season they know they'll have to forge ahead without him.
"It's gonna be tough,' Keisel said. "Aaron, in my mind, is the greatest. He's my mentor and someone who taught me this game.
"He will be missed in our locker room, but I think he's still going to be around, hopefully, still be a part of our leadership in the locker room.
"We all love Aaron. We all wish him the best."